First gray whale seen in the southern hemisphere

Written by Dr Simon Elwen, of the Namibian Dolphin Project

On the 4th of May 2013, marine tour operators working in Walvis Bay, Namibia, reported an ‘odd looking whale, possibly a gray whale’ to local researchers running the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP). A few years ago, the presence of a North Pacific gray whale in the South Atlantic would have been dismissed out of hand, but the sightings in 2010 of a gray whale in the Mediterranean has changed ideas of what is possible. Analysis of photographs were conclusive, and confirmed that the animal was indeed a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). This is the first confirmed record of the species from the Southern Hemisphere that we know of and certainly the first in the South Atlantic.

Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) sighted in Walvis Bay, Namibia in 2013

A skin sample has been collected from the Namibian animal. We have no way of knowing the route followed by the whale to get to Namibia, but it seems most probable that it came via the North Atlantic, having arrived there via either the Northwest Passage across North America or the Northeast Passage across Eurasia. Climate change and specifically the reduction in ice coverage in the Arctic is making sightings such as this one less improbable.